As a result of nuclear weapons production and subsequent nuclear power generation, large amounts of nuclear waste of various classifications has been created but not mitigated. The majority is “orphaned” in that it has no permanent repository in which to safely decay away. In addition to spent fuel from commercial electric power reactors, there is a considerable amount of more challenging wastes contained in temporary tanks and pits, and in contaminated buildings, soils and sediments. This “legacy waste” as it is called, is mostly the result of plutonium enrichment and purification processes for weapons production (USA, UK, former USSR). There are extremely complex technical, socio-economic, environmental, political and psychological challenges associated with securing nuclear waste in safe repositories.
In Part 1 of this seminar, students will examine the scope of the problem, what is known about safely retrieving, processing, transporting and permanently storing waste forms, and the consequences of radiation exposure. We will consider the following topics with an eye toward distinguishing among hard facts, soft facts, fiction and perception:
- Origins of nuclear waste
- Nuclear physics & chemistry; and plutonium processing
- Radionuclide effects on humans, environment and ecosystems
- Environmental contamination and temporary waste storage
- Decontamination, clean-up, transportation and repositories
- Nuclear waste regulations and government policy
- Risk analysis and public perception
- Stakeholders, whistle blowers and special interests
In Part 2 of this seminar, a collaborative, cross-disciplinary approach to safe waste management and storage that considers the needs of all stakeholders (see figure) will be considered. The instructor and students will discuss and identify several case studies for which solutions and best practices will be developed. Each case study, for a specific waste site, waste form, operation or information need, will be divided into tasks or steps based on the requisite disciplines and information needs. Students will form teams of experts, who will develop and report cross-cutting strategies to facilitate progress. A final consideration will be how this experience has informed your perspective on other contemporary challenges such as shale gas production.
The course will focus more on nuclear wastes from weapons production than on those from electric power production. The former waste forms present the greatest environmental challenges and teach us the most about the need to consider sustainability and life cycle analysis.
During the semester, there will be several guest speakers from academia and government agencies.